Friday, May 24, 2013


What if Tom Sawyer's idealistic and freedom-loving personality were transported to the modern Mississippi?  What if an actor who spent the better part of a decade starring in terrible romantic comedies and misguided adventure movie flops suddenly started appearing in high-quality Indie dramas?  You get "Mud".

At some point somebody, perhaps the zeitgeist of American culture, perhaps the greedy manipulations of smoke-filled rooms at the top of sinister towers where those evil Studio Execs live, or perhaps the gifted autistic child who secretly controls the entire planet from his iPhone, decided that real stirring human dramas should be excised from most movie theaters and segregated to upper class arthouses or the occasional AMC Theater.  So "Mud", being an Indy movie with a focus on characters dealing with honest emotional problems, can only be found in about a hundred theaters across the country.  And the new Fast and Furious movie can be found everywhere, because that's a big stupid action spectacle, which is what my countrymen really want to see.  Hell, I have to explain what "Mud" is now, because it isn't an adaptation, sequel, remake, sequel to a remake, reboot, or prequel.  Now that I've proven my cynical movie hipster credentials by bemoaning the state of modern cinema, I guess I can actually review something.

"Mud" is a coming-of-age story featuring two barely-teenage boys in Arkansas slowly losing their childhood innocence when exposed to the dark realities of life.  Matthew McConaughey is the titular character and the most prominent figure on the posters, but he isn't the star.  He plays Mud, a charismatic drifter living in an abandoned boat that's washed on the top of a tree in some tiny abandoned island several miles from civilization.  The boys find him and are taken in by his mystical wisdom and his story of waiting for his girlfriend, played by Reese Witherspoon, while on the run from some very nasty folk.  The lead boy, Ellis, is just beginning to understand love and relationships, both their beginnings and ends.  He's got a crush on an older girl and even manages to get a date with her, at the very same time as his parents' marriage is breaking apart.  Mud's romantic story appeals to him.  But the real world isn't quite so romantic as either Mud or Ellis want it to be, leading them inevitably to a solid confrontation with reality.  The results make "Mud" a very good movie, an oasis of quality drama in the midst of depth-less crowd-pleasing cinema.  Every so often, just to keep your sanity, you have to stop seeing Blockbusters and you have to see something more personal, more introspective, and more emotional.

Matthew McConaughey's Mud is easily the best part of the film, and I've become increasingly impressed with his work over the years.  McConaughey is a gifted actor with obvious charm and charisma, talents which have so far been wasted in misguided films like "Failure to Launch".  Last year he starred in "Killer Joe", which was actually one of the best films of 2012.  It was a grisly, ugly family tragedy filled with violence and unpleasant people - if Anton Chekhov had grown up in South Carolina, this is the sort of story he'd have created.  And Matthew McConaughey was masterful in that film, as a chilling badass mercenary, dominating every single moment of screentime.  Mud is a very different character.  He's a good man with an honest love for Reese Witherspoon's character, Juniper.  However, his simplistic view of the world led him right into the homeless and destitute circumstances which he currently resides in, where his only friends in the entire world are a pair of children taken in by his mysticism.  Its actually a shame the Mud character is not shown more often, as McConaughey was really born to play this role of a grown Mark Twain character on the run from the law, his criminal enemies, and even the hard truths about the woman he loves.

Beyond the personal dramas, "Mud" is a well-shot movie featuring an excellent usage of place and nature in order to define its theme.  The Mississippi River is one of the most simply magical places for a film location that the United States has to offer.  The only other piece of geography that is so storied, mythical, and representative of entire cultures is the wilderness of the West.  "Mud", much like last years "Beasts of the Southern Wild" features a small, virtually unknown caste of river folk living off the water to get their livelihood and even live on floating river houses.  The star boys, Ellis and Neckbone (yes, Neckbone) spend their days either helping their families collect fish or oysters for market or wandering free on their own boat, made from scavenged parts.  When Ellis sees his parents break up, it means the loss of his home, and his father is able to use that as a manipulation, screening his own personal failures through the threat of the loss of river lives.  Mud himself spends the entire film in on his island or in the water, never once stepping into the civilization that's abandoned him.  And his ultimate dream is to step into the even further freedom of the open sea of the Gulf of Mexico.

However, "Mud" does have some failings.  Any movie to feature Michael Shannon and not use him as a crazed hardass villain is definitely not casting its people properly*.  But far worse is a strange anti-woman theme.  Of the three main females:  Ellis' mom, his girlfriend, and Juniper, none of them prove to be faithful to their men.  Ellis and his girlfriend breaking up is obvious from the start:  how many relationships of fourteen-year-olds last more than two weeks?  The real problem though comes form the Juniper character.  Reese Witherspoon has no little screentime its impossible to know exactly why she does any of the things she does, and her role is left utterly thankless and even reaches into Bella Swan-levels of pure feminine evil.  I don't think the director meant to say with "Mud" that "women will always betray you" but he wound up saying it anyway.

Ultimately though, those problems merely keep "Mud" from becoming one of the great classics of 2013, but they don't stop it from being a fantastic little Indie movie.  If only somebody could find a way to take the humanity of "Mud" and combine it with the spectacle of "Star Trek Into Darkness", then you'd really have one of the best movies ever.  Oh well.  As it stands, emotional dramas must have their space and silly Blockbusters must have their own.  Perhaps separated forever, but each important for the diversity of cinema landscape.

* He's going to rock in "Man of Steel" as General Zod.  The movie might prove mediocre, which would really suck since the trailers for "Man of Steel" look beyond fantastic, but Michael Shannon will rock.

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